What is Ashtanga Yoga?



The system of Ashtanga Vinyasa is a style of yoga popularized by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in the 1940's. Ashtanga literally translated means eight limbs, of which asana (yoga posture) is just one limb and breath control (or pranayama) is another. The first two limbs - Yamas and Niyamas - are given emphasis to be practiced in conjunction with the 3rd and 4th limbs (asana and pranayama).

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois began his yoga studies in 1927 at the age of 12, and by 1948 had established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute for teaching the Ashtanga method.

"Power yoga" or "Vinyasa yoga" are terms that refer to a type of aerobically vigorous yoga exercise derived from Ashtanga yoga.

The method of Ashtanga Vinyasa begins with five repetitions of Surya Namaskar A and five repetitions of Surya Namaskar B. It is then followed by a progression of standing poses and once these are complete the student then begins one of the six series. The practice is completed by a closing sequence.

The Primary Series, also known as Yoga Chikitsa (or Yoga Therapy) is the most widely practiced amongst the rest. View the postures in their sequential order here.

The Ashtanga method emphasizes linking breath (specifically Ujjayi pranayama) with movement, otherwise known as Vinyasa. In the words of Pattabhi Jois, "Vinyasa means 'breathing system'. Without vinyasa, don't do asana. When vinyasa is perfect, the mind is under control".

Additionally, a gazing point (or drishti) is assigned for each posture to encourage one-pointedness and meditation.

When a student attains the correct breath, posture, and drishti it is called Tristhana: The three places of attention that cover the three levels of purification: the body, nervous system and the mind. 

Alongside breath and drishti, bandhas are also a key principle. Bandhas are energy locks and emphasized in order to control prana (life force/energy) in the body and achieve greater control. The bandhas are:

- Mula Bandha: Root lock located at the pelvic floor (drawing in the perineum)

- Uddiyana Bandha: Slightly drawing the abdomen back towards the spine. This bandha is said to be located about  2 inches below the navel

Jalandara Bandha: Throat lock. (lowering the chin slightly while raising the chest towards the chin) This bandha is not practiced in all postures unlike the other two.

The format of Ashtanga yoga always remains the same; always beginning with Surya Namaskar, concludes with rest, and the various asanas gradually fill the space between these two sides. Learning yoga in this traditional manner benefits the student on many levels. It is possible for one to gain independence and confidence in their sadhana (spiritual practice), as well, something truly becomes one’s own when they learn it by heart. It is through the daily practice of Ashtanga Yoga that we draw it into ourselves, understand it, and become proficient in its methods, thereby reaping its wide range of benefits. For this to be accomplished, a slow, dedicated and patient approach is best.*

Traditionally, the Ashtanga method is taught directly and progressively from teacher to student in a style called "Mysore". In a Mysore Ashtanga class, students are practicing on their own with individual instruction from the teacher. All students begin their Ashtanga practice being taught Surya Namaskar A, followed by Padmasana (lotus pose), proper breathing, and a few minutes of rest to conclude their first day of practice. The next day after Surya Namaskar A, Surya Namaskar B is taught, and one then again finished in the same way as the previous day. After both of the Surya Namaskar have been practiced correctly, each of the following postures are added one by one. When one posture is correct, the next one is taught. Depending on the age and ability of the student, it can take anywhere upwards of 3 months to learn the primary series.

There are Led Ashtanga classes widely offered in which the entire (or most) of the Primary Series is taught in a group setting and the class follows the instructor together. This can be beneficial to learning the entire series. 

Parampara is sanskrit word that denotes the principle of transmitting knowledge in its most valuable form and from direct experience. The yoga tradition exists in many ancient lineages, but today some are trying to create new ones, renouncing or altering their guru’s teachings in favor of new ways. Surrendering to parampara, however, is like entering a river of teachings that has been flowing for thousands of years, a river that age-old masters have followed into an ocean of knowledge. Even so, not all rivers reach the ocean, so one should be mindful that the tradition he or she follows is true and selfless.*

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, NYC 2001

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, NYC 2001


*quoted from KPJAYI